What Lies BeneathInspiration
A journey beneath our feet with Robert Macfarlane
Portrait & Words by Alexander Turner
Known for works of powerful, literary beauty, Robert Macfarlane has pioneered the resurgence of nature writing in the British bestseller list. As his latest book, Underland, gathers plaudits for its astonishing environmental urgency, Macfarlane shares with us his beliefs on how the darkness beneath our feet can shed new light on the marks we are making above ground.
Sidetracked: This is the first book you have written focusing on the world beneath our feet, why take us there?
Robert: One of the paradoxes at the Underland’s heart is that there are certain types of illumination that happen in the dark. And there are certain types of knowledge which can be found underground. It is a place of confinement, where we seek illumination and vastness. It’s a place where we go to see as far back in time and as far out in space as we possibly could. The most conceptually beautiful example of that is scientists studying dark matter – the most mysterious substance in the universe is studied a mile below ground because that is the quietest place in the universe. That to me, is all of the paradoxes of the Underland bundled together. It can be hostile and menacing but it can also be revelatory. The upper world is reborn when you have been underground and when you came back up suddenly things like colour and smell are miraculous again. That fascinates me.
Did you learn anything whilst Underground that can be applied to wider human societies?
I think the Wood Wide web is one of the best answers to that. “Western science” has only in the last quarter century has uncovered a global mutualism that has been at work ecologically for about 400 million years. Forests may be thought to be complex super organisms rather than competing individuals. This astonishing model of possibility, depending on how we interpret the wood wide web, a mutualism that permits extraordinary community or citizenry to coexist in this space we are sitting now. Humans can be very good at this too – the NHS when it is working at its best is one of the great political ecological structures we have made in this country. You get a sense that the wood wide web and the more than human world is looking back at us.
A major discussion of the book is the type of marks that we ourselves are leaving in the fossil record. Are we being good ancestors?
No, right now we are not. We are very poor at future thinking. We live on this fabulously lively earth that is so much more than us, so much older than us, but also so vulnerable to us. There is an urgency now, which has consequences that will extend centuries, millennia ahead of us. Another of the large subjects of the book is living in an end time atmosphere. As a species we are experiencing claustrophobia. The world tightening down in terms of options. Every move we make seems to only wriggle us tighter into our trap. I’m fascinated by our brutality, our incompetence as a species but also by the amazing forms of cooperation and future generosity we are capable of.
When viewed in deep time, how are we able to cause such damage to such an ancient structure as Earth?
What has happened in the Anthropocene is that human and geological time have aligned for the first time in the history of our species. Which is to say we have gained the power of technological amplification and the force of number to the extent that we are now geological beings, not just geomorphological or ecological beings. We are shaping an earth history that will be legible for millions of years to come. That is a new moment, and so this sense of deep time underpinning and underwriting all that we do has suddenly begun to flip and change in these strange temporal distortions of the anthropocene.
Are you hopeful that we can begin to reverse or mitigate against the effects we are having on the planet and it’s inhabitants?
There are wonderful hopeful visions out there and so much extraordinary grassroots energy and hope for small scale change as well as large scale structural change. I think the school climate strikes are a real source of hope. That and the Green New Deal which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others are pushing in America. Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis are also producing a Green New Deal in Britain. Any meaningful move to decarbonisation needs to recognise and take into account the exoskeleton of infrastructure that has been created to accommodate us. It has to be reorganised, it can’t just be an ontological dreamwork. We can draw down carbon and we can replenish our ecosystems, these are not competitive models. They are one and the same. Sensitive, ecologically appropriate large scale tree planting is one of the best things we can do. I was in Glen Africc recently, where Trees for Life are [seeking to reestablish the Caledonian forest], and it absolutely blew me away. The life in it! Change can happen quite fast I think.
Does deep time alter how and what you value in your personal life?
A 300 million year old rock in a way flattens all hope, flattens all love and flattens all fear, but showing ourselves in deep time actually sharpens what it means to live. What is means to care. What it means to love. What arose from me is a sense of astonishment at the sheer fact and wonder at the world that we do have and do live in. We shouldn’t be here when you look at us in deep time and we have hardly been here any time at all, but here we are in these rich capacious minutes that we live in – surrounded by astonishment.
When you were underground did you ever feel unwelcome?
Rock isn’t welcoming. You can be not even twenty vertical feet down from the surface and from the light but this is a world that is of such deep time that it wasn’t unwelcoming so much as indifferent. I first learnt about deep time in the mountains, seeing their bones and realising they lived in this completely other time. I feel very comfortable in mountains as long as I am not trying anything too hard. Caving and being underground, that’s a different matter. Underground, is an order of indifference I hadn’t really felt in the mountains. That is thrilling as well as intimidating.
What compels you to write so extensively on the natural world and our relationship with it?
I have devoted my writing life to trying to celebrate, diversify and subtilise the relationships we have with the world beyond the human. Underland is the darkest book I have ever written but it is full of wonder and hope as well. It celebrates the possibility of rich relations with the more than human world. I do feel like that is the job – to find a way to speak to these questions and is probably why I will never stop writing about landscape, nature, people and place. It is inexhaustible and seems vital to me. Bill McKibben says ‘climate change will never mean anything to people until they feel it in the gut’ and I think that is what writing can do – it can make people feel things in the gut.